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At Cannes, an existential fight over technology, Netflix and the future of cinema

Will Smith and Pedro Almodovar jostled over it.

Silicon Valley executive Ted Sarandos defended it.

The Oscar winner Alejandro Inarritu boasted about it.

And the people who run the entertainment business can't stop debating it.

Despite its traditionalism, or perhaps because of it, this year’s Cannes Film Festival became the epicenter of the digital disruption rumbling through Hollywood.

From the screenings in the grand Palais des Festivals to the swanky parties on the beach to the crowds along the Croisette, it was impossible to run into a boldfaced name without also confronting the issue of digital progress--how much of it can, will and should be allowed into this bastion of cinematic purity. Opinions flowed like rosé, arguments flashed like paparazzi cameras. Everywhere one went in the glamorous town, people discussed and debated the industry’s relationship to Silicon Valley, the fate of the old-school movie theater and the kind of screen content that deserves to be called art.

In other words, an existential fight for the future of entertainment, all along the French Riviera.

"Cannes," said the festival veteran and FilmNation executive Glen Basner, "has to figure out what it wants to be.”

The identity crisis began even before the festival opened when two Netflix movies—Noah Baumbach’s family dramedy “The Meyerowitz Stories” and Bong Joon-ho’s biogenetic satire “Okja”-- were included in Cannes’ prestigious competition section. French theater owners protested and festival organizers hastily backtracked, saying that in the future any movies not released theatrically in France would be barred from competition. (The winner of the competition section, considered the top tier of Cannes movies, receives the coveted Palme d’Or.)

At issue, however, is far more than a few international honors or the identity of a 12-day glitzy event on the French Riviera. Cannes may be the pinnacle of cinematic prestige and hold an outsized reverence for the past, but it represents a mind set that, depending on one's point of view, should either be valiantly upheld in the face of barbarians or eagerly torn down in the name of democracy.

At the start of the festival, Spanish filmmaker Almodovar declared to reporters that “the size [of a film] should not be smaller than the chair on which you are sitting.” The head of this year’s competition jury, he added that: “[As long as] I’m alive I’ll be fighting for the capacity of hypnosis of the large screen.”

Sitting near him, Smith, a member of that jury, took exception. “Netflix has had absolutely no effect on what [my children] go to the movie theater to watch,” he said. “It has broadened my children’s global cinematic comprehension.”

The faceoff was a surprising moment of candor, violating an unspoken rule that jury disagreements stay private. And it was just the beginning.

Meeting with a small group of U.S. reporters at Netflix’s festival headquarters several days later, “Okja” director Bong said he didn’t mind if people couldn’t see his film in theaters. “It if looks good on the big screen it will look good on the small screen,” he said.

The pro-Netflix statement was met with a tweak by the actor Jake Gyllenhaal, one of the film’s stars. “So everyone at the premiere can sit and…watch it on their phones?” he said to the director, who was sitting near him.

The blowback didn’t stop Netflix from seeking to leave its mark on the festival with numerous events and parties. The largest of them was a glitzy bash at a villa outside downtown that evoked halcyon days of festivals past, when established U.S. and French giants regularly threw over-the-top parties.

Yet the company has also sought to position itself as an outsider. Posting on social media shortly before the festival, Netflix chief Reed Hastings proclaimed that the “establishment [is] closing ranks against us.”

Later, at the villa party, Netflix’s Chief Content Officer Sarandos told the trade publication Variety that if the company was indeed barred from next year’s competition, executives would find it “less attractive” to bring its movies to Cannes. He also said he found the idea of a high-minded festival requiring a commercial presentation a “paradox.”

Many found those remarks problematic.

“You can’t say you’re starting a business to shake everything up and then be annoyed when people complain about it,” Basner said. “That’s disingenuous.” Like a number of longstanding executives and producers, he also registered his objection to the Netflix films’ inclusion in the competition.

“Cannes competition should be about theatrical titles,” he noted. “What Netflix does is great. But no place celebrates cinema the way this place does. There are places outside competition for other kinds of entertainment.”

More coverage: Cannes Film Festival 2017 »

The first “Okja” screening saw some criticism come without words. As the screening began, the picture on the screen was badly misaligned, prompting a 20-minute delay and much hooting from the audience. It was widely believed to be an act of sabotage by the pro-theater projection team at the festival after Bong had personally checked the projection just hours before.

Netflix vs. the traditionalists is not an easily dismissed spat. Under the leadership of new chief Scott Stuber, a longtime A-list producer in Hollywood, Netflix has pledged to make as many 50 movies per year, a number that dwarfs even the biggest studios and would dominate the landscape if it came to pass.

Critics have been quick to note that the pro-Netflix stance is influenced by the company’s willingness to open up its wallet; the streaming giant has been underwriting budgets far larger than other studios, as it did with the effects-heavy “Okja,” or buying finished movies at much more than the going rate.

That kind of overspending risks creating a bubble and bringing down companies that can’t compete, say critics, leading to consolidation or even quasi-monopolies.

“It's really feast or famine right now,” said Adam Goldworm, the founder of the management and production company Aperture Entertainment, shortly after leaving Cannes. “If Amazon or Netflix wants your film, you're set. But this is a short-term boon, and as the cash-rich streamers continue to price all other buyers out of the market and ultimately out of the business, I fear that they will then use monopolistic pricing principles to lower prices when they are the only buyers left.“

Some Cannes purists pointed out that the directors who spoke in support of Netflix were the ones working with Netflix. Bong’s comments elicited an eye-roll from many in the entertainment press corps. And there were similar mutterings about Smith’s remarks; the star has an upcoming project with the streaming service, an action-fantasy in which he plays a Los Angeles Police Department officer.

Having financed his movie independently before joining with Netflix for distribution, Baumbach carefully walked the line between the two camps. “I believe in that unique singular experience of going to the movies,” he said at the press conference for his film. “That's not going away. [But] Netflix acquired the movie in post[production] and they’ve been hugely supportive and I feel very appreciative.”

There may be other ways to meld digital and analog. Amazon was also well-represented at Cannes, with several movies in competition. Unlike Netflix, which eschews all but a token theatrical release, Amazon abides by the traditional theater-cable-streaming chronology. Bob Berney, head of the company's movie marketing and distribution, said that he continues to see value in this middle ground.

“We think it helps streaming audiences discover a film when there was a long-running theatrical release,” he said. “But I think there’s room for all kinds of models.”

He said he did not worry about a bubble. “My feeling is that all these new outlets are great for filmmaking and great for audiences, who have more alternatives.”

Those alternatives stretched even further at Cannes. For the first time this year the festival allowed in a virtual-reality piece, Inarritu’s immigrant-themed “Carne y Arena.”

And while it remains unclear how wide this kind of programming will be embraced by organizers at future Cannes editions, VR has the potential to shake up the festival and the industry far more than the streamers, since VR movies are a radically different form in a way a two-hour Netflix feature is not.

“It was a big decision for the festival to accept us,” Inarritu told The Times. “But they think, and I think, this is an extension of cinema, and so it’s important we’re here.” (Festival director Thierry Fremaux did not reply to emailed questions about technology and Cannes.)

In fact, the changes go beyond questions of medium to encompass even the tone of movies at the festival. Organizers came under some criticism when they decided to allow into competition “Redoubtable,” a cheeky movie about Jean-Luc Godard, the high priest of French cinema. Godard himself called the project--from the director of the Oscar best-picture winner “The Artist”--a “stupid, stupid idea,” and many European critics scoffed.

Those behind “Redoubtable” see the criticism as symptomatic of the same calcification that makes Netflix so needed at Cannes.

“People say how can you do a movie about Godard? But if you don’t shake up traditions, why be an artist?” said Louis Garrel, the 33-year-old actor who plays the French icon, in a comment that easily could be applied to the technological fight.

Many in the film business look to Cannes the way passengers look to flight attendants on a turbulent airplane—if they’re changing their routine, everyone else needs to as well. That’s one reason the Netflix titles caused such consternation.

Still, the festival continued to hold its ground in other areas—notably television. There were gala debuts for David Lynch’s rebooted “Twin Peaks” and the new season of Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake.” But Lynch and Campion are Palme d’Or winners with deep ties to the festival and for the most part, Cannes resisted the siren call of TV, and the sweeping television sections of competitors like Toronto and Sundance.

Defenders say a Cannes inclusive of Netflix films is a matter of necessity. The major Hollywood studios were absent from Cannes for the first time in many years—no “Mad Max,” no Pixar movie. (Increasingly, Hollywood powerhouses feel they don’t need the prestige stamp of Cannes for a summer movie, while it’s too early to bring a fall release given how quickly publicity evaporates in the social-media era.) Without companies like Netflix, these defenders say, big-ticket entertainment might leave the festival entirely.

Besides, say supporters of the Cannes digital movement, the inclusion of titles from companies like Netflix does not detract from others’ ability to shine at the festival.

“People say this is the mecca of cinema. And it is,” said Inarritu. “But it’s OK to have smaller houses of worship too.”

See the most-read stories in Entertainment this hour »

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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